When Beth Stelling emerged from Chicago’s comedy scene in the late aughts, it was as a cohost of the DIY showcase Entertaining Julia. There, she and erstwhile Chicago duo the Puterbaugh Sisters would welcome local comics to the teensy Town Hall Pub, emceeing with the confidence of stadium headliners.
Nine years later, Stelling isn't quite booking stadiums—but she does headline Chicago’s 950-seat Thalia Hall this Thursday (the Puterbaughs open). Now based in L.A., Stelling has perfected the art of airing her most personal secrets onstage, along the way racking up two half-hour specials and writing credits on HBO's Crashing. Ahead of her return to Chicago, Stelling talks working in TV and the comedy scene’s harassment problem.
You started out performing in small rooms in Chicago. What will it be like to perform somewhere as big as Thalia Hall with the Puterbaughs?
Hopefully not empty. I think it’s going to be great. The Puterbaughs and I just did the 10,000 Laughs festival in Minneapolis, and we performed Entertaining Julia there. We can kind of do it anywhere—it’s just us three hosting and messing around. I think it’ll be great, now that all three of us are in Los Angeles, to come back and be where we started. We’ll do some stuff where they bring me onstage, and then I’ll do mostly new material that I wrote after my Netflix special.
What is your process for creating new material?
I was writing on Crashing through the end of August, and my tour started at the end of September, so I only had about three weeks in between to write. I learned the hard way with a gentle audience in Toronto that I have to sprinkle in my new material with my stronger stuff that works. In Chicago, I’ll be even more able to play.
Does going out on those gigs help your writing on Crashing?
Absolutely. And since the show is about New York comedy, gigging helps me know that scene. [Showrunner and comic] Pete Holmes pretty much stopped doing standup while filming the show, because he had so much to work on—including being in every single scene. Where I come in is, I’m still getting out and seeing who’s in the scene, and bringing in people for the show's scenes in alt-rooms. For example, Kenny DeForest, Clark Jones, and Will Miles, who I started with in Chicago, all host a show at the Knitting Factory. I was able to bring them in for season two.
Have you noticed a difference in the way people approach stand-up compared to when you were starting out?
I’ve always found it odd that, in stand-up, you can do anything you want, but most people stick to the rules. There are no auditions or interviews to be a comic. Literally anyone can sign up for an open mike. But pretty much everyone, myself included, goes up and stands at the mike and tells their jokes.
I’ve definitely seen some crazy shit. I saw this one show where a guy goes up and somehow picks himself up in a plastic garbage bag. It was so upsetting. I’ve also seen a guy in L.A. jump up and land on thumbtacks. Someone from Chicago, Ian Abramson, did sort of break the mold of a stand-up comic—he found himself performing on Conan, and he did his bit where he wears a shock collar.
As more instances of sexual harassment and assault emerge, I’m reminded of your Instagram post two years ago, where you called out an abuser. What advice do you have for women in the scene based on your experiences?
I remember once, standing at the back of [local showcase] Comedians You Should Know and having a comic pull my ponytail and smack my ass so hard it took my breath away. I remember thinking to say “stop it,” and I’m sure I got angry. But I also still performed on the show, and I didn’t say, "I’m not going to come back here if you do that again." My advice would be to write down or have in your mind things that you can say in response when you are pushed or threatened or when you feel like you don’t have power, because the truth is that you do.
It’s changed, and that’s good. Back then I felt trapped. I didn’t necessarily think, Oh no, if I don’t let him do that again I won’t get to do this show again. But I felt scared of that person. He was bigger than me and an alcoholic. Like I said, there’s no interview to be a comic. There were times when I wanted to quit, when I felt trapped in an unsafe place. It’s good that people are open now. You just have to take care of yourself. Even if it feels like, This will end my career, or, If I don’t perform here, I won’t make it, that’s not the case—especially in Chicago
There doesn’t seem to be as much of a prominent gatekeeper comic or theater or showcase in Chicago anymore.
Even if I was avoiding other shows or had said, “if you do that again I’m never coming back,” I would always have Entertaining Julia. So would all the women who came out of Cameron Esposito’s class, Feminine Comique, at Lincoln Lodge. Creating your own space is a viable option now—I see it happening in bookstores, bars, clubs. Now I think there are more women doing stand-up, especially in Chicago, visibly. I feel less alone. It’s up to people to support one another and look out for each other, and that’s men and women included. It’s not easier to stand up for yourself, but it might actually work now.